The Disaster Genre in Film and TV Explained (Definition & Examples)

The Disaster Genre in Film and TV
Here's everything you need to know to survive the disaster in your next film. 

What kind of movie do you like to put on when it's raining outside? Or what if you want a wild rollercoaster ride that almost always has a happy ending? There are many different film and TV genres that can scratch those itches, but for me, I love a good disaster movie. The disaster film and TV genre is epically fun. There are massive earthquakes, tornadoes, moons falling, the end of mankind, character archetypes, and lots of very loose science. What's not to love? 

Today, I want to go over the disaster film genre. We'll look at the definition, examples, and some of the tropes you can expect to find inside it. Hopefully, this is your guide to unlocking another genre you can use in your writing, producing, directing, and overall enjoyment of cinema. 

Let's get started. 

disaster film genre
'Twister'Credit: Warner Bros.

The Disaster Genre in Film and TV Explained (Definition & Examples)

Believe it or not, disaster films have been around since 1901. The first disaster genre movie ever recorded was Fire! made by James Williamson of England. This silent film portrayed a burning house and the firemen who arrive to fight the flames and save the people inside. And it birthed a new genre into the world. 

But how do we classify these films and TV shows? 

Disaster Genre Definition 

A disaster film or TV show is classified by the use of an ongoing disaster as its primary driving force of the plot. These disasters include forces of nature, accidents, terrorist or wartime attacks, global catastrophes, pandemics, and other disease-related problems. This is considered to be a subgenre of the action film and TV show variety. 

Disaster Genre Tropes 

When it comes to storytelling, there is usually a build-up to the disaster, an inciting incident that unravels the disaster or begins the ongoing disaster, and then some aftermath as the story ends that sums everything up. These stories are usually told from the point of view of specific characters or their families that embody the survival tactics of different people.

Meteors, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and catastrophic climate change are popular subjects. These films usually have all-star casts filled with people who fit into different character archetypes. There are jocks, newscasters, mayors, corrupt politicians, shady rich people, class warfare, science nerds, damsels in distress, and then all sorts of subversion of these characters. You can develop anything you want, you just want a community trying to make it through this disaster. 

disaster film genre
'Armageddon'Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Disaster Movie Genre Examples

As we mentioned, the first disaster movie was Fire! in 1901. But from there, we only had a few sporadic titles in the disaster genre. We saw movies like The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) and John Ford's The Hurricane (1937).

But when the 1950s brought forth science fiction movies, we saw the disaster genre come to light. Movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) all brought disasters into the spotlight. 

Then, the 1970s brought a huge wave (pun intended) of disaster films, set off by the 1970 release of Airport. That movie was a massive success. Earning more than $100 million ($600+ million in modern money), it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. We also saw marquee titles like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) which was nominated for eight Academy Awards. You also had titles like The Towering InfernoEarthquakeThe Hindenburgand many, many more. 

The genre died out at the end of the 1970s, but saw a massive resurgence in the 90s and early 2000s. With the rise of CGI and computer graphics, audiences were treated to even bigger spectacles and stories. Some of the best entries into the disaster genre came about, like TwisterIndependence DayDaylightDante's PeakVolcanoHard RainDeep Impact, and Armageddon

And we got the most important disaster movie as well. James Cameron's Titanic. It told an intimate story that became the highest-grossing film of all time (for almost 12 years) with over $2.1 billion at the worldwide box office. It also brought back the golden era of a disaster movie that was also a great story and won over critics, winning 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.

disaster film genre
'Titanic'Credit: Paramount/20th Century Fox

Disaster TV Shows

We spent so much time covering disaster moves that I wanted to take a beat to talk about disaster TV shows as well. There are ones spun with science fiction and horror, like The Walking Dead, and ones based on true events like Chernobyl.

We see shows like Station Eleven, which use its episodes to explore a pandemic and the aftermath. There's also LOST, which was the biggest TV series for a little while and played with the genre over the course of several different seasons.  

These are all fairly modern shows. I think it took a while for TV show budgets to hit the necessary peak in order to capture disasters fully. This should show you how malleable the disaster genre can be. If you have an imagination, you can take it anywhere you need to go. 

disaster film genre
'Chernobyl'Credit: HBO

Summing Up the Disaster Genre in Film and Television

This is obviously one of the most fun genres out there. It fits perfectly with other genres if you want to blend things too. The only requirement here is that you have fun with the storytelling. Think outside the box. Tell us an epic story that has incredible visuals and that keeps us on the edge of our seats. 

Now go get back to filmmaking.      

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